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Even if your drinking water gets a ‘passing grade,’ it may not be safe

An empty glass in hand, you turn on the faucet to quench your thirst. But what exactly are you drinking? That question and all its public health implications have undergone greater scrutiny in recent years, yet the overall safety of the U.S. water system is far from assured, experts say.

A report released this week by the Environmental Working Group found that “the vast majority of the nation’s drinking water supplies get a passing grade from federal and state regulatory agencies.” But, the authors suggest, that does not say much.

To come to that assessment, researchers analyzed 32 million state water records from 2012 to 2017 from 50 states and the District of Columbia, checking for more than 270 contaminants, both regulated and not, such as lead, nitrates, and PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals.” In some cases, contaminants break down from lead or copper pipes, leaching harmful minerals into the water supply. Elsewhere, agricultural and industrial run-off from farms and factories wash into rivers or seep into groundwater.

There are no federal limits on half of the contaminants detected in drinking water, according to the report, and establishing such regulations takes years. Regulating chlorate, a disinfection by-product that has been linked to thyroid problems when consumed in high doses, was proposed in 2011, but has gone nowhere, said Sydney Evans, science analyst for the Environmental Working Group.

“Legal does not necessarily equal safe,” she said.

That idea rings painfully true in Flint, Michigan. In 2014, the city of 100,000 people with a majority-black population realized that, due to a cost-saving measure, dangerously untreated tap water was flowing inside their homes, schools and businesses. Among the houses where samples were collected, more than half showed levels regarded as either very serious or requiring action, and water contamination levels for lead violated federal guidelines. Children were found to have high levels of lead in their bloodstreams, which can permanently blunt brain development. Five years later, and despite national outrage, the city still has not fully recovered, and no one has been prosecuted.

Yet long before the Flint water crisis, many Americans have suspected something may not be quite right with their water. The steps to reassure the public will take far more data, coordination, vision and investment. But just as local water systems vary from community to community, the problems and solutions are diverse and complicated.

Something in the water

The nation’s water system is an incredibly fragmented patchwork of more than 51,000 water utilities. For example, Los Angeles County, with 10 million residents spread over 4,751 square miles, supports roughly 200 water utilities alone, said author Seth Siegel. That means utilities generally do not have sufficient money or geographic footprint to plan or pay for improvement, he said.

Siegel, who tracked this public health dilemma in his book,“Troubled Water,” said a third of Americans report that they only drink bottled water because they do not trust what flows out of the faucet. Most people who say they rely on bottled water said they do so out of concern for health and safety.

“We need to change drinking water from an environmental issue to a public health issue,” he said.

Another problem is that the federal government is not mandated to manage water the way it should be, Siegel said.

Control of the nation’s water supply is broken up into often tiny, localized jurisdictions. These water systems were not built up all at once, but as cities and towns were established over time. That shapes the way cities and towns see their role and the resources needed to fix fractured pipes and infrastructure — but water systems don’t start and end at property lines, said Sunil Sinha, a civil engineering professor who directs the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management program at Virginia Tech.

In some parts of the U.S., current water systems were put in place more than 100 years ago. Oftentimes, those systems have since been ignored, Sinha said. When pipes burst or water systems are contaminated, communities usually rush to patch up the problem, rather than take a step back to collect data about what caused the problem, or how to fix the system — steps that could lead to a more holistic and long-lasting solution, he said.

A regulatory snapshot of “forever chemicals”

Perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, are man-made chemicals first manufactured in the 1950s and used to make waterproof and stain-resistant clothes and non-stick cookware. But those modern-day conveniences came at a cost. Most of these chemicals never break down and are so pervasive they are found in air, water, animals, including those we eat, and people. Because of their pervasiveness, there’s a solid chance PFAS are coursing through your bloodstream. Starting in 2000, manufacturers voluntarily began to stop using these chemicals, but other countries still make them.

Prevalence matters because evidence suggests that PFAS could negatively influence a child’s growth and development, a woman’s chances of getting pregnant or a person’s risk of cancer, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. In 2016, the EPA issued a health advisory that warned the public to avoid drinking water with concentrations greater than 70 parts per trillion, so as to offer “a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure.”

According to the Environmental Working Group’s data released this week, public records revealed PFAS-polluted water in 1,026 sites in 49 states. As many as 110 million Americans drink water contaminated with these chemicals, the group has estimated.

“These widespread, manmade chemicals have leached into our soil, air, and water,” according to the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. “People are most likely exposed to these chemicals by consuming PFAS-contaminated water or food, using products made with PFAS, or breathing air containing PFAS.”

The institute noted more research needs to be conducted before drawing conclusions about the health impacts of these pervasive chemicals. But public outcry is growing to address potential risks associated with PFAS chemicals.

During a hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday, members of Congress asked why government regulators were dragging their feet before taking action on PFAS.

Lawmakers questioned Charlotte Bertrand, deputy assistant administrator for policy in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water. When Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asked why the EPA was “taking so long” to regulate chemicals that appear to hold so much risk, Bertrand said, “We want to make sure we get it right.”

Three years ago, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said the EPA had warned that these chemicals had reached “levels that weren’t healthy.”

“These are chemicals we need to watch as they go into our water system,” Capito said then.

Studying the problem, one well at a time

In Miami, Douglas Yoder studies computer models to figure out when climate change and sea-level rise will force saltwater into the groundwater supply for 2 million people in Dade County. According to the best estimates, residents of the South Florida beach city have until 2040 before the ocean intrudes on much of Miami’s well water supply, said Yoder, who serves as deputy director for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department.

Ominous signs already point to a grim future for potable water as a result of man-made climate change. Clear-sky flooding occurs when particularly high tides push ocean water through Miami’s drainage system and into the city streets. You only need to dig 10 feet in most places before you hit the city’s groundwater, he said. That means contaminants also do not have to trickle far below the ground’s surface before reaching the water supply.

Recently, Yoder said his team began to collect samples from each of Dade County’s roughly 100 wells to check for PFAS contaminants, a process that should wrap up by mid-November. At first, they gathered 25 samples. They had to be careful, Yoder said, because the EPA’s 2016 health advisory applies to such low concentrations — “like one drop in six Olympic-sized swimming pools.”

But the results from that first batch yielded three wells that were problematic, including a well near Miami-Dade International Airport. Yoder suspected that significant PFAS levels originated from the fire retardant chemicals used by airport staff. But that was enough to make Yoder and his team conclude “we ought to look at all the wells in our system.”

“It is evident that these compounds, which have been around for a while, are problematic, but they’re also kind of ubiquitous,” Yoder said. “Our ability to detect materials is always way out in front of our understanding of what that means in terms of public health.”

The urgency of acting now

No federal database exists that tracks every mile of water pipeline in the U.S., but Sinha is working to change that. So far, he has worked with more than 500 water utilities nationwide to collect data on 275,000 miles of pipelines and water infrastructure, their age and issues, and his team plans to publish their findings next year.

Failure to act now, Sinha said, will only result in a proliferation of cities and towns that meet the same fate as Flint.

“Unfortunately, it happened there [in Flint]. It can happen in other places, also. Lead and copper pipes are everywhere,” he said. “We have to see this as a system.”

The only way to truly transform the water system in this country, Sinha said, is to establish a national agency that drives a more unified agenda, like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but for water infrastructure. The stakes are too high, he said, if the U.S. continues to do nothing.